Agriculture and the Apocalypse

By my reading of history, the turning (or tipping) point for humanity was the domestication of plants and animals, otherwise known as the Neolithic Revolution.  Before this occurred — at different places in the world at different times, beginning approximately 12,000 years ago and largely the dominant mode of production by 5,000 years ago — all humans were hunter-gatherers.

When I lecture or write on this critical — albeit little known — topic, I like to use a string of “s” words to describe the consequences of domestication:

  • Sedentism
  • Surplus
  • Specialization
  • Stratification
  • Sickness

These seemingly innocuous words are but basic descriptions for much larger changes in population, politics, warfare, economy, and religion.  The default assumption for most people seems to be that these changes were an unmitigated improvement and herald the dawn of “civilization.”

I have never been convinced that these effects were for the better; in that sense, I am a proud member of the “Paleoterrific” crowd.  This first dawned on me after reading Marshall Sahlins’ classic article, “The Original Affluent Society” and his book on paleolithic lifeways, Stone Age Economics.  Both should be required reading for those who believe that post-Neolithic civilization has been good either for humanity or earth.  Since first reading Sahlins’ article and book, I have read hundreds of ethnohistories and ethnographies on hunter-gatherers, including archaeological assessments of foraging, and nothing has changed my mind.

Although these issues do not receive much attention in the popular press, the BBC’s science reporter Paul Rincon recently interviewed Dr. Spencer Wells, who is the geneticist, anthropologist, and explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society (sounds like a very nice job).  During the interview, “Sting in the Tail of the Farming Revolution,” Wells expounded on the problems resulting from intensive agriculture, which makes everything else about “civilization” possible:

In [my new book Pandora’s Seed], I talk about global warming and overpopulation. I trace a lot of these issues back in time to the dawn of the Neolithic. This was a period when humanity made a sea change in its culture. We settled down and started growing our own food.

Given that it has been so successful – 99.99% of the people in the world today are agriculturalists, and hunter-gatherers are a tiny minority – you would guess that it is successful for a reason. That it is a wonderful way of life, improved our health and so on.

It turns out, that’s not actually the case. Even if you look at very early communities, as they made the transition from a hunting and gathering lifestyle to farming in the same region, they became less healthy. They ended up shorter, they tended to die younger, the skeletal structure changed in a way that’s consistent with a decreased level of nutrition. So the question is why did (farming) win out?

Wells provides a climatological explanation, which may be partially correct and even necessary, but it is not sufficient.  Any explanation that fails to include the inexorable and uncontrollable drive to have sex and reproduce cannot be complete.  Regardless, Wells ascertains that farming has led to many unexpected and unpleasant consequences from which there may be no turning back:

Wells: But unfortunately, [the agricultural revolution] had lots of ancillary baggage. And the book is really about tracing that ancillary baggage. Diabetes, obesity, mental illness, climate change.

Rincon: How would people in western societies fare now if we had to be more like hunter-gatherers again?

Wells: I think we’d be in trouble (laughs). I think I’m probably romanticising hunter-gatherers somewhat in the book. But I have spent time with these groups and there is this remarkable sense of calm and almost coming home after a few days.

And it’s because they utilise so much of what it is to be human. So many different parts of the brain – their natural history knowledge is extraordinary.

Then there are the tracking skills, the hunting skills, the gathering skills, knowing where to find things at particular times of year. Even though it looks like a desert, you know where to dig down and find a tuber that’s going to keep you alive for a few more days.

We’ve lost all of that, and I think we’ve lost a lot in the process. We live in a very technological world, where everything’s available to us on Google. But if we lost that ability to Google things and we had to go out and subsist for ourselves in a marginal environment, I don’t know that we’d be able to do it. Once you lose it, it’s very difficult to get it back.

Wells’ ancillary baggage list is actually pretty tame; the slaughterbench of post-Neolithic history is perverse and the destruction of the earth’s plants, animals, and environment proceeds without pause.  The disaster in the Gulf is but the latest example, and is symptomatic of post-Neolithic societies. To this dismal list, I would add the all-important breakup of extended kinship groups, communal sharing of resources, and egalitarian ways of hunter-gatherers.

The Lakota and other Native Americans had good reason for resisting the advance of European civilization and detesting nearly everything about it, beginning with its intense focus on individualism, acquisition, consumption, and materialism.  Most of them thought the same of its pessimistic, prescriptive, doctrinal, and intolerant religious practices.

Did you like this? Share it:

Leave a Reply